Pregnancy cravings: Real or imagined?

I am 26 weeks pregnant and have been craving a variety of foods throughout my pregnancy, including lemons, spaghetti sauce, steak and ice cream. Is this just an excuse to eat, or is my body craving the nutrients in these foods?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Some of the funniest foods and food combinations are eaten during pregnancy. Your body's dramatically changing hormones are sending you into a crazy world of strange and new sensations, complicated by an altered sense of taste and smell. Most cravings are probably attributable to this phenomenon, but some cravings may be nutritionally based.

Food cravings are powerful urges to eat particular foods that you may not have previously desired. The most commonly reported cravings are for sweets and dairy products, sour fruits and spicy foods -- so you have plenty of company with your ice cream, lemon and spaghetti sauce cravings! However, meat is one of the most commonly reported food aversions during pregnancy, so your desire for steak is not shared by many of your pregnant peers.

Some nutritional explanations may factor in for some of Mom's cravings. A desire for salty foods -- such as pickles -- may indicate a need for more sodium as blood volume and body tissues are increasing.

A more serious type of craving, called pica, in which women crave nonfood items, like dirt or laundry starch, can be dangerous and even fatal. Several theories have been proposed as to what causes pica, from a deficiency of calcium or iron, to the ability of certain nonfood items to quell nausea and vomiting. However, there has never been any medical reason determined. Needless to say, cravings of this nature are not to be indulged.

Your cravings aren't necessarily a problem if they don't cause imbalances in your diet, or prevent you from eating other important foods. Be sure to eat a good breakfast, since skipping that meal can heighten food cravings later in the day. And try to work your cravings into a balanced diet. For example, squeeze fresh lemon juice onto your fish instead of drinking empty calorie lemonade. Or satisfy your ice cream craving with nonfat frozen yogurt, which will better help you meet your calcium needs with fewer calories.

You may find that your cravings are less intense as your pregnancy progresses. If not, rest assured that there is nothing harmful in the foods you are hankering for, so long as you fit them into a nutritionally balanced diet.

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